Max Verstappen took full advantage of a controversial collision between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to take his first grand prix victory in his maiden race for Red Bull.
The 18-year-old, who was promoted to the senior team after the decision was taken to demote Daniil Kvyat to Toro Rosso following his accident with Sebastian Vettel in Russia two weeks ago, fully justified the team’s controversial change with a faultless drive to become the youngest Formula One race winner in history, beating Vettel’s record of 21 years and 73 days by over two years.
But while the motor racing world rejoiced with an emotional Verstappen as he celebrated his first race win, an investigation was ongoing at Mercedes to determine how neither of their drivers made it past the fourth corner.
Hamilton made a solid start off the line, something that has hindered him in previous races when starting from pole in Australia and Bahrain. However, Rosberg matched his Mercedes teammate and used the tow generated on the long run to turn one to gain momentum and sweep around the outside, taking the lead off the start once again.
Hamilton fought back after getting a run through turn three, but when he dived to the inside of Rosberg, the reigning champion was forced onto the grass by Rosberg’s move across the track.
Hamilton was out of control on the turf, and he ploughed into Rosberg on the entry to turn four, taking both cars out of the race in shades of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna’s battle, all of 26 years ago. Prost, who coincidentally joined Channel 4’s live coverage of the race, admitted afterwards that his two collisions with Senna at Suzuka immediately came back to him, with the four-time world champion adding that the relationship between Hamilton and Rosberg could be in will danger of boiling over.
Niki Lauda immediately laid the blame at the feet of Hamilton, with the Mercedes non-executive chairman claiming that the three-time world champion was “over-aggressive”. However, Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff said afterwards that the team debrief – in which both Hamilton and Rosberg arrived to with their helmets still on – had determined that there was not a clear person to blame and that they would let the stewards determine who was at fault.
"Niki has the drivers opinion and the instant reaction and it's fair enough, but as a driver you see it as black and white,” Wolff .told Channel 4. “As a team we have looked at the data and it's not as clear cut. Nico had a really good turn one and turn two, Lewis had a good turn three and Nico shut the door. Let's see what the stewards say."
Hamilton risks receiving a 10-place grid penalty on top of any punishment if he’s determined to be the aggressor in the collision, given he has already received two reprimands this season from race stewards.
With both Mercedes out of the race, the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo assumed the lead with his 18-year-old teammate, Max Verstappen, providing cover for him in second. Ferrari weren’t able to immediately challenge, with the fast-starting Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz jumping to third off the start – though he would be passed by both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen before the first stop.
Ricciardo held onto his lead through the first cycle of pit stops, but the state of the race changed once again when Ricciardo dived into the pits on lap 29 with Vettel following him a lap later, both drivers switching to a three-stop strategy. Verstappen and Raikkonen both stayed out, with Red Bull and Ferrari electing to split their strategies and put the latter two on a two-stop strategy.
Once the second stops had played out, and Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India had taken itself out of the race in a fiery blaze as his Mercedes engine let go on lap 22, Verstappen led Raikkonen with Vettel leap-frogging Ricciardo with the help of the undercut to take third.
The race victory was there for Verstappen to seize, providing he could keep Raikkonen behind and ensure his tyres didn’t hit the famous ‘cliff’ before the end of the race.
Ricciardo quickly caught Vettel and caught his former teammate completely unaware when he lunged up the inside at turn one, only to run wide and allow Vettel back through in turn two. The German fumed down his radio, clearly unimpressed with the move, but that didn’t stop Ricciardo trying everything in his locker to get by the former world champion. However, his challenge fell apart – literally – when his left-rear tyre delaminated after he suffered a puncture, though despite pitting with two laps remaining the lead over the fifth-placed Valtteri Bottas was big enough for him to come home fourth.
History was being made though at the front, and Verstappen kept Raikkonen at bay to come out of the final corner with the crowd, the engineers and the press on their feet to cheer him over the line to clinch what could be the first of many race victories.
Verstappen celebrated emphatically as he came out onto the podium to take his place on the top step, with his father, Jos, in tears as he looked on from the pits at witnessing his son doing something he never managed to do during his Formula One career.
“It feels amazing, I can't believe it,” Vettel said after the race. “It was a great race. I have to say thank you to the team for giving me such a great car.
He added: “My dad helped me a lot, and to achieve this, [it's] amazing.”
Vettel was quick to praise Verstappen, having seen the Dutchman break is record of becoming the youngest Grand Prix winner in history after surpassing Vettel’s race victory at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix by two years and 292 days.
“Congratulations to Max, it’s a great achievement and it’s his day”, Vettel said on the podium. “It’s Max’s day and as sportsmen we have to respect that.”
UPDATE: F1 race stewards confirmed that neither driver would face any action after investigating the incident after the race.
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